Menopause, Mental Health and Me Part 2
To mark World Menopause Day Miriam Akhtar describes how positive psychology can help you manage the psychological symptoms of menopause and flourish after fifty.
Part 1 on my own experience of the menopause transition.
It can be a tough call for women turning fifty. Managing menopause symptoms on the inside while out in the workplace dealing with the double whammy of ageism and sexism. Older women seem to be invisible in the workplace, in research and in the media. Twelve years ago my namesake Miriam O’Reilly won an age discrimination case against the BBC, which happens to be my former employer too. It was rare then to see female presenters aged over fifty on TV. A decade on my friend and colleague Lucy Ryan describes, in her book Revolting Women, how a generation of midlife women are walking out, rejecting or being rejected by an inflexible workplace culture.
When I embarked on a working life in positive psychology in my forties I knew it wouldn’t be possible as an employee so I went down the route of self-employment. It’s worked out well and this encore career gives me a strong sense of meaning and purpose. I knew that to flourish would mean choosing to operate outside of the culture that prefers to value women for their looks over their wisdom and experience. And I had to develop the menopause mindset, which I now share in workshops. Much of the current focus on the menopause is about physical wellbeing and access to HRT but the psychological side receives less attention. So here are five ways, drawn from positive psychology, to support the menopause transition and one way to flourish after fifty.
Learn Optimism. Gloomy thoughts are all too common when your hormones are out of whack so here’s a way to tackle everyday pessimism. Optimistic Explanatory Style is a form of optimism that works by challenging the way we think about the causes of the events in our lives. When something negative happens it’s easy to blame ourselves. The pessimist tends to see the cause as personal – it’s all my fault; permanent – it’s always going to be like this and pervasive – now it’s all ruined. Optimists think in the opposite way. Challenge gloomy thoughts by applying the three Ps of optimistic thinking. How might the cause of the negative event be not personal? What other factors were involved? How might it be not permanent? This too shall pass. And challenge the thought that everything is ruined. OK so you had a misfortune in this part of life, but what areas of your life are currently working well.
Worst to Best Case. With anxiety spiking at menopause, you might find yourself stuck in a cycle of catastrophising, with your mind racing to imagine the worst-case scenario. When you’re in the grip of insomnia it’s easy to get trapped in a loop of anxious thoughts. One way to address catastrophising is to ask yourself what would be the best-case scenario? Now I know that might feel wildly improbable but so is the worst-case scenario generally. Thinking of the best-case and most-likely scenarios helps us to gain some perspective so that we have the cognitive flexibility to see other ways a situation can go and can do what it takes to make it more likely to happen.
The Joy of Anticipation. Midlife is when happiness reaches its low point somewhere around the age of 45. Wearing the grey-tinted glasses to match the grey hair makes it harder to see that there are good things to look forward to. We know that anticipation generates more positive feelings than retrospection. You can start building optimism towards the future by making a list of all the good things happening tomorrow and then pick one to visualise and anticipate the warm feelings it will give you. This process helps bring out the rose-tints. Having something to look forward to is an easy, everyday way to a happier life.
Not the Weaker Sex. Strengths are the Positive You – your best qualities like courage or kindness. And your talents – maybe you have the interpersonal ability which means you can strike up a conversation with anyone. When you’re feeling fatigued and enfeebled by the menopause, your strengths are a resource to help you back to functioning well. A common complaint at menopause is losing a sense of identity. The antidote to this is to get to know and use your strengths. They give you the greatest potential for growth as well as boosting confidence and self-esteem. So that’s a win: win.
The We of Wellbeing. There is one fundamental truth about life. We need other people for our wellbeing. No woman is an island but relationships can be strained by unspoken tensions and menopausal outbursts. You need a ratio of 5 to 1 positive to negative emotional events for the relationship to flourish. Five positive actions to repair the damage from every one argument. Relationships are a bit like plants – feed them and water them and they will grow. It’s the same with humans. Regular contact with friends and family helps develop the bond.
And one tip to flourish after fifty
One thing I know for sure is that the shorter life becomes, the more the need for meaning grows. We don’t want to waste our time on trivial matters and yearn for fulfilment. Eudaimonic happiness is the type of wellbeing that comes from using your strengths to contribute to the greater good. The pay off is that it not only delivers a deeper sense of satisfaction but is also a sustainable form of happiness. So if you know your strengths and apply them to something that is meaningful to you, not only are you more likely to be successful but the door will open to this deeper kind of happiness.